Prosecution of Distracted Driver Sends Message

Rollen Fries admits he wasn’t paying attention.

On July 15, 2016 Fries was driving on Highway 14, west of Madison when he struck and killed Cynthia Arsnow. Arsnow rode her bike regularly from her home on Madison’s east side to her job in Cross Plains. Fries admitted at the scene that he had been looking for some paper on the passenger seat at the time he hit the cyclist.

The Dane County District Attorney’s office brought charges against Fries for negligent homicide. Yesterday a journey found Fries not guilty of those charges.

Cynthia Arsnow

But despite the outcome the Bike Fed is grateful to the D.A. and to Deputy District Attorney Matthew Moeser for sticking with this case. According to press reports, in his closing statement Moeser argued that jurors should only find Fries not guilty if they thought it was okay to drive inattentively.

We don’t know what the jury’s reasoning was, but we hope they didn’t conclude that careless driving resulting in death is acceptable. More likely, the defense was able to get them to relate to Fries more than they could to Arsnow. Most of those jurors probably have had the experience of driving that stretch of highway while it’s unlikely that any of them have been on a bicycle there.

So, this was going to be a tough case to win from the start. But what the D.A. was arguing is very significant. It’s the idea that when you are behind the wheel of a car you have a special responsibility not just to be unimpaired, not just to follow the rules of the road, but also to pay attention to what you’re doing. And that applies not just to looking for some papers, but also looking at your cell phone. As drivers, we are in charge of deadly force and that increases our level of responsibility.

The jury may have decided that Rollen Fries made a mistake any of them could have made. But the very fact that Fries stood trial at all sends a message to the broader public that being distracted is no excuse. You want the privilege of driving a vehicle? You must pay attention.

The Dane County District Attorney’s office did a public service just by pursuing this case and bringing it to trial. They deserve the thanks of all of us who ride a bicycle.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

3 thoughts on “Prosecution of Distracted Driver Sends Message

  1. It sent a message all right. And the message was in Wisconsin you can kill people on bicycles with your car and suffer no consequences. Why are we are supposed to be grateful to the DA for doing their job half assed? They failed to get a conviction on a person who admitted the crime!

    The fact that you can write this joke of an article shows how out of touch you are with the cyclists of Wisconsin. We need action, not more useless talk.

  2. Dave, thank you for the update. Someone who crashes while driving distracted should at least lose their driver’s license and have to earn it back through driver education. If they hurt or kill someone, they should at least have to go through a restorative justice process. Are those options even part of the discussion around punishing distracted driving and protecting vulnerable road users? I don’t understand why not. They would be more effective (and less likely to lead to a straight-up acquittal, as happened here) than counting on twelve jurors to convict someone for what some would see as a “good person’s careless mistake” that tragically got someone hurt or killed.

  3. Kudos to the prosecutors for speaking the truth out loud. They were 100% correct. Just because we have a population who does not want to hear it, and will likely not punish an inattentive, rampaging driver, does not mean they should not try. It’s only a dozen people, but maybe those 12 jurors will drive cautiously, instead of assuming you get a free pass.

    There are indications that vehicular homicide is becoming less acceptable, that certain people are sick of hearing about Wisconsin drivers killing people every day. Isolated individuals such as this prosecutor want to make vehicular homicide unacceptable. Maybe there is hope.

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